The Mission of God in the City from Jacques Ellul to Amos

As we¬†analyze¬†Jacques Ellul’s book,¬†The Meaning of the City, we are able to obtain a Biblical and panoramic perspective about the emergence of the first cities. According to the philosopher and theologian, the first cities came into being as an answer to men’s insecurities and¬†inefficiencies. A man,¬†deprived¬†of communion with God¬†and away from the¬†Garden of Eden, went on to¬†live a vagabond¬†upon the earth¬†that had become cursed and hostile to him.

This man¬†was Cain,¬†the first to¬†build a city.¬†Cursed¬†by God, Cain¬†flees the¬†presence of the Creator¬†seeking¬†refuge in¬†a¬†city, which¬†would be¬†to him his¬†own version¬†of Eden, where¬†he would find¬†safety and satisfaction to his longings for eternity.¬†Thus,¬†Jacques¬†Ellul¬†states that¬†the city appears¬†then as¬†a¬†fully¬†human¬†work,¬†made¬†‚Äč‚Äčby human hands and¬†without the need¬†of God’s involvement.¬†In the city, the presence¬†of God is¬†excluded¬†because in it, man¬†himself¬†tries to¬†reproduce what¬†he had lost as a consequence¬†of sin.¬†The city¬†emerges as¬†a¬†human response to men’s insecurities and longings for eternity.

Then with¬†Nimrod, the¬†control over the city¬†becomes¬†more¬†valuable in the struggle for power. Nimrod¬†was¬†the first emperor,¬†a¬†conqueror of¬†many cities¬†and the first¬†powerful man on Earth.¬†To him it is¬†also attributed¬†the building¬†of Babel¬†where,¬†once again,¬†a man by his¬†own¬†forces would try to¬†approach God. Thus, with¬†Nimrod,¬†the city became¬†a¬†place of¬†human achievement¬†and demonstration of¬†power.¬†A place where¬†men build their¬†towers, their¬†memorials,¬†to show their¬†arrogance¬†and independence¬†of God.¬†The city¬†becomes not only¬†a¬†place for safety¬†and continuity, but¬†ends up being¬†an¬†object of¬†man’s¬†lust¬†for power¬†and domination,¬†a¬†place for their¬†memorials and¬†monuments¬†celebrating¬†their conquests of war.

According to¬†Ellul,¬†is¬†in this context¬†of conquest, domination and struggle for power that¬†God’s people¬†(the Church) is inserted.¬†The people of God, set apart¬†to bear witness to¬†a covenant,¬†to be¬†totally dependent¬†in one God¬†and to be¬†targets and victims¬†of his grace, need¬†to know¬†how to live¬†holy lives in this context¬†permeated by the¬†sin of independence from God.¬†Such was¬†the challenge¬†in the land of¬†Canaan, to¬†the Israelites who had been pilgrims in the desert, and¬†this is the¬†challenge for¬†the Church’s mission¬†in the world today.

Amos as an Example

Analyzing the Book of Amos we are able to reflect on the dialectic relationship between judgement and salvation in the urban context. At first sight, it is necessary to understand a little of the context in which Amos was inserted. That was a time of prosperity for Israel, under the reign of Jeroboam, Israel was enriched by the strong trade with its neighbors. Despite the apparent prosperity, injustice reigned in the political, judicial and religious arenas, enabling the growth of inequality between different social strata. And so, the poor were oppressed by injustice and the practice of judicial bribery in the courts.

As a consequence of injustice, the prophet announces a sentence as a result of divine judgment. The mismanagement of justice by the governmental powers had brought the city under judgement. The life and message of the prophet in this way represents a harsh criticism against the unjust society and oppressive system. The prophet, at a second glance, appears as a divine emissary to lead the townspeople to repentance and salvation.

When confronted by¬†his calling, the¬†prophet¬†declares that he did not belong¬†to the¬†prophetic movements¬†of the time,¬†but that¬†he had been ordained¬†by God himself¬†highlighting the legitimacy¬†of his mission.¬†As a leader¬†appointed by God, Amos’ role is to¬†“prepare the city¬†to meet¬†her God”¬†(Amos¬†4:12).¬†Although being from the outside of the¬†ecclesiastical structure,¬†Amos¬†appears as¬†an¬†agent of the¬†ministry of salvation¬†to lead¬†the city¬†to be¬†prepared¬†as a bride prepares to¬†meet the bridegroom.

In all, the redemption of the city has an eschatological aspect. The hope projected to a future time where the tabernacle of David would be restored and the practice of righteousness would become the worship of Israel. Amos is raised to include the excluded, to humble the proud and to promote the salvation of the city.

The Monastic Example and Contextualization

Amos is for us today an example to be followed when we talk about urban ministries. We recall that the prophet was a peasant, a sheep farmer, a man from a rural reality sent to prophesy in the great urban center of Israel. He had been taken from behind his animals and led by God to exercise a ministry of social transformation during the reign of Jeroboam in Israel and King Uzziah in Judah.

Amos was not a declared prophet or son of a prophet, rather he said that did not belong to any prophetic circles of his  time. Amos did not belong to the socio-religious systems of the time, he was not recognized as a prophet nor as a religious leader. But God had raised this man, who comes from out of town to now prophesy in it.

This is the¬†first¬†aspect to be analyzed, Amos¬†was from out of town.¬†His mentality¬†was not urban, he was not used to¬†the “quick fixes” and¬†urban customs, nor was he used to the rampant injustice¬†at work in his time.¬†In a way, this shows us¬†how we ought to look¬†to the city.¬†The¬†fact that we are¬†embedded in¬†societies¬†where violence,¬†market competition¬†and political corruption¬†are present¬†makes us¬†often complicit and tolerant as we witness the same injustices day after day.

Through a complicit attitude, the ways and unjust practices of the world are incarnated in us without reservation. The blemishes and morally questionable acts such as prostitution, deception and lies witnessed daily create in us an utopic assumption of cultural innocence or callused conscience. People who fit this profile tend to think that to be accepted by the world you have to be like the world. What this entails is a moral and spiritual irresponsibility.

However, in a more recent history than that of Amos, we note the existence of movements that sought to reform a complicit Church. We see that, through medieval history to the dawn of the modern era, the monastic life was the main element of protest against a weak and decadent Christianity demonstrated by the ecclesiastical system of the time. Men who came from the outside, like Amos, lived as true prophets in the midst of a corrupt world and complacent religious society.

The¬†monastic¬†life emerged as¬†a¬†form of¬†silent¬†withdrawal¬†from the moral values¬†‚Äč‚Äčof the Christian Church¬†in the Middle Ages.¬†Their ideal was¬†the mortification of the flesh, as manifested¬†by¬†withdrawal¬†from the comforts of¬†life. It all began after the end¬†of the persecution of Christianity by the Roman Empire.¬†Because of the¬†peace of Constantine, thousands of¬†people were¬†clinging¬†to Christianity¬†and being¬†baptized. As standards were lowered,¬†many saw in the style of¬†monastic life¬†a different alternative¬†to a¬†depleted¬†Christianity of the time.

The¬†narrow gate¬†of which Jesus¬†had spoken¬†had become so¬†large¬†that a crowds were hurrying¬†to go through¬†it¬†– many of which were seeking¬†positions of power and other political privileges,¬†without having¬†an¬†idea of¬†‚Äč‚Äčbaptism or¬†the Christian faith.¬†The bishops¬†competed for¬†more prestigious¬†positions.¬†The¬†rich and powerful¬†seemed to dominate¬†the life of the Church.¬†A midst¬†this¬†context of¬†deprivation¬†of the ethical values¬†‚Äč‚Äčof Christianity where¬†indiscipline,¬†immorality, worldly pleasures¬†of luxury,¬†wealth¬†and greed. Such had¬†infiltrated the¬†cleric of the¬†Church, and so men began to¬†see in the opposition to these values¬†‚Äč‚Äčthe solution for Christianity.¬†The reaction¬†would then be an escape from¬†a¬†society where¬†such¬†moral values¬†‚Äč‚Äčwere¬†maintained.

Readjusting their spirituality was the first step towards a reform. The escape into the wilderness to life in seclusion, served as a way to avoid compliance with the world. Virtues of purity, righteousness and holiness grew out of the servile attitude of disciplined monks, principles we can learn in order to develop a Christ-centered spirituality focused on serving others today.

Among these principles were solitude, silence and prayer. Solitude in itself was not only privacy, but an escape from the world, a desperate measure to bring death to self, abandoning all falseness and superficiality of the ego for a genuine commitment to Jesus. Above all, these monks went into solitude to meet the Lord Jesus and be with him and only him. Where as the main focus was to turn the eyes of their heart to their Divine Savior.

Another key principle of monastic life was silence. Silence was the very manifestation of solitude, the manifestation of the attitude of surrender without arguments of self-defense or self-righteousness. The silent introspection led the monks to know God and know themselves. And finally, the last essential principle was prayer.

Prayer was the main part of the day in the monastic life. It was the way to purify the heart which gave them eyes to see the reality of their existence and also gave discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff in their ministry and thus become less ambiguous witnesses of Jesus Christ. Going back to the essence of Christianity was not only a form of protest, but also a way to reform the church and bring redemption to the world.


In conclusion, the¬†prophetic role of the Church¬†in today’s world¬†has to also come from the outside in.¬†As¬†Amos¬†came from the outside into the¬†urban culture bringing¬†the values of the Kingdom of God with him, and as Anthony,¬†Pachomius, and many others¬†left behind the¬†compliance with the world in¬†order to¬†establish the principles¬†of the Kingdom of¬†God in their lives first, to then bring them back into the world, the Church today must first rethink her spirituality, by pulling herself out of the world, in order to then exercise her ministry of reconciliation int ¬†the world.